Sadna Samaranayake

Incalculable Impact, Please?

When is impact legitimately “incalculable?” Is a limited ability to wrap metrics around your impact ever acceptable or desirable?

The last decade saw the birth and mainstreaming of concepts that captivated our attention and made an indelible, if incalculable impact on our lives. The BoP initiative as we know it was born, tested and advanced into a nuanced movement by the work of academics and practitioners. The blogosphere got its legs and quickly outpaced print as a source of news and commentary, fast becoming a platform for active citizenry. We became steeped in social media as a way of life. The list goes on. The impact of these developments cannot yet be fully understood or measured – try as we might. For how do you measure a shift in paradigm?

This decade will bring its own innovations and movements. Hopefully among them will be initiatives with indelible impact on the lives of people living at or near the Base of the Pyramid, through increasing access to goods and services that result in better health outcomes, income generation opportunities, and greater financial access. We are seeing promising momentum in these areas, through the alignment of CSR strategies with core business operations, and in the mainstreaming of concepts like Inclusive Business and Hybrid Value Chains. And yet, while we work on qualitative and quantitative ways to assess the resulting impact on lives at the BoP, it’s ultimately that incalculable kind of tectonic shift in “business as usual” for which we all should take aim.

The Business of Impact in Hybrid Value Chains

Measuring impact is undeniably important work for any initiative and is all the more challenging for innovations like Hybrid Value Chains, due to the “hybrid” nature of value created. Not to be confused with Blended Value Propositions which posit the simultaneous creation of social, financial, and in some cases, environmental value, Hybrid Value Chains involve a multitude of stakeholders each of which generate and are themselves affected by multiple dimensions of impact.

Hybrid Value Chains engender an alignment of social value creation with the ethos of the involved companies and organizations. By their design, HVCs attempt to create new value through cross-sector, collaborative entrepreneurship and their successes are marked by the opening and development of new markets, rules of engagement and ways of doing business for all actors. This means that HVCs must realize impact at a client, organizational and market level. It’s simply insufficient to assess impact based on measuring outputs and outcomes in the lives of beneficiaries and clients. While methods of assessing social value creation at organizational levels have come a long way, including Social Return on Investment methodologies that incorporate qualitative indicators, we still have work to do when it comes to understanding impact at industry, market and paradigm levels.

Over the next weeks Ashoka’s Full Economic Citizenship team will bring you a series of posts looking at HVCs in affordable housing. For now, suffice to say, where initiatives offer not just innovative products, but catalyze new markets and hold the promise of creating more empowered citizens – as the BoP and social media movements of the past decade did – incalculable impact is indeed legitimate…. perhaps it should be the goal.